By Leah McDonald / February 28th, 2022
|Developer||FuRyu Corporation, LANCARSE Ltd.|
|Release Date||February 22nd, 2022|
|Platform||PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Steam, Nintendo Switch|
Considering the state of the world the last couple of years, games about depression, despair, revenge, and coming to terms with one’s faults have been particularly striking to me (see my top three games of 2021 here, here, and here). So it came as absolutely no surprise that Monark resonated so strongly with me when I got a chance to check the game out. Not only does it have a healthy dose of all the above, it’s also got a really interesting world and lore that feels highly reminiscent of its Shin Megami Tensei spiritual roots.
Set in the prestigious Shin Mikado Academy, the game opens with a student being unceremoniously murdered by creepy skeletal monsters, with a mysterious voice asking the boy to show it his Ego. Immediately after, we’re thrown into the introductory cutscene, where we meet the school dean and are given a pop quiz (as you do). Your answers determine your opening stats, and then you’re spit out into the game proper. The school has been cut off from the rest of the world, and covered in something called Mist that turns anyone trapped inside it too long, insane. You awake within the Mist to the calls of upperclassman Nozomi Hinata, the school doctor Kakeru Hasegawa, and your little sister Chiyo Aikawa. You’ve completely lost your memory (as you do), but that doesn’t dissuade your companions from helping you escape the Mist. Before you can, however, Chiyo receives a call on her cellphone, and when she answers it, the group is whisked into the same quasi-dimension from the opening, surrounded by the same skeletal creatures. Chiyo is unconscious, Dr. Kakeru is injured, and neither you nor Nozomi can fight. But as things look bleak, a creature that resembles a stitched-together stuffed rabbit appears. He calls himself Vanitas, and offers you the power to protect your loved ones, bestowing upon you Imagigear and the ability to fight the daemonic Legion in this Otherworld. You prevail, and everyone escapes to the safety of the third-year building first floor.
Whatever is happening at Shin Mikado, it’s unleashed daemons called Monarks who form pacts with humans. Monarks control Legions, which roam the Otherworld, and the Mist is a physical representation of where our world and the Otherworld begin to overlap. By accepting Vanitas’ help, you’ve now become the Pactbearer of Vanity and can wield Authorities – special abilities granted by a Monark to their human, that allow them to control Legions and perform magic. Using your Authority creates Mist, however, and causes more distortions in the world that allows the Otherworld to exert its influence. There are seven other Pactbearers in the school, each aligned with one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and by using their Authorities they’ve caused this calamity to occur. Dean Sora Jingu requests your aid in hunting down and defeating your fellow Pactbearers, to stop the spread of the Mist and save the world from chaos. But when defeating a Pactbearer means they lose a part of their soul, is her request so easy to accept?
As far as plots go, Monark isn’t the most original, but the philosophical questions it asks, and the psychological repercussions it explores, are incredibly compelling. Humans accept pacts from Monarks to fulfill fervent desires, and pitting their deepest wish against the world allows for several avenues to explore worldview, experience, and the ways in which we cope with trauma. It also creates some intriguing lore that mixes religion, philosophy, faith and education in a way I haven’t seen in many other games, and I found it the most enthralling aspect of the game. I wanted to understand each Pactbearer, to see why they would accept daemonic power to attain their goals. Even when the gameplay began to frustrate me, I powered through to find the next lore tidbit, to flesh out the world this game has created.
Speaking of gameplay, the general loop remains pretty consistent from the moment you become a Pactbearer. The Academy is split into several distinct buildings, and each of them has three Mist sections you need to explore and disperse. While you pick up a variety of human companions throughout the story, your constant companions are customizable Legion aspected to one of the seven Monarks – Pride, Wrath, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust. Fights are turn-based and focus on strategy. Units have varied movement and can take advantage of the terrain for back attacks, counters, or environmental hazards to damage opponents. Attacking an enemy within range of an ally will cause those allies to also attack as an Assist. And much like Shin Megami titles, any rule a player character can use, the enemy can as well, so thoughtful placement is important to increase your damage, or protect yourself from excessive attacks. Along with attack options, units can also Defer their turn to one that’s already gone, giving a unit a second chance to attack, but also increasing their Madness. Linking Deferrals can provide a massive movement boon to one character, or let you lean into a strong attack over and over to complete fights faster. Units can also Wait and skip their turn in exchange for a self-heal.
After each fight, you gain a certain amount of Spirit, which you expend on buying abilities for characters and Legion, and is also the only way to level, since every purchase grants you a level and corresponding stat boost. Abilities include straight damage, buffs, debuffs, heals, and specials split between Arts and Authorities. Arts expend the user’s HP, while Abilities increase the user’s Madness, so you’re constantly weighing whether you want to damage yourself, or raise your Madness gauge with every action. If your Madness gauge reaches 100 percent, your unit goes berserk and will attack friend and foe alike, gaining a damage buff but significantly lowering defense. Human characters also have an Awake gauge, which unlocks special abilities once it hits 100 percent and the unit Awakens. Pactbearers can Resonate with allies and enemies to share buffs, debuffs and stat changes. If an Awakened character Resonates with a Maddened one, both attain Enlightenment, which significantly increases stats, removes the Madness berserker debuff, and unlocks one-time use abilities. Juggling all of these aspects can create a really engaging fight. They can also be the difference between winning, and losing, when going against stronger enemies, since matching levels is almost a requirement in order to win most fights.
For the most part, I really liked this battle system. It rewards creative and thoughtful engagement while discouraging brute force. There are an assortment of optional fights you can use for farming Spirit, some better than others, and getting a high score requires you to take advantage of Assists, Deferrals, Awakenings and as few turns to complete a battle as possible. The higher your score, the higher your Spirit bonus. What I didn’t really like was the inability to see what level fight you were entering before you entered it. You can review unit stats once you’ve initiated the fight, but if you have, say, taken on a level 95 fight when you’re level 35, the only way to back out is to engage in battle and then quit. This also goes for story fights, which can jump in level drastically between areas. There’s a lot of grinding in Monark, which isn’t bad in and of itself (though this reviewer personally hates grinding), I just wish I could see what I was getting into before wasting time picking units and initiating battle.
One thing that does not bother me at all, however, is the music. Monark‘s soundtrack is phenomenal, with a ton of catchy earworms and moody pieces alike. The boss fights are some of the most energetic I’ve heard since ALTDEUS, and make having to try over and over again, when I get crit’d on the final mob and have to restart the fight from scratch, much more bearable. Not only that, but there’s a music player in the start menu, so you can go back and listen to any song you’ve unlocked whenever you want. More games need this option, it’s fantastic.
At about 40 hours, I’ve completed one ending in Monark with at least two more paths to explore, but what I’ve played has been an engaging, thoughtful experience that I constantly want to return to. The characters are relatable and varied, raising questions about humanity, faith, love, and remorse that I found really resonated with me. Learning more about them kept me going, even when I got frustrated at yet another grinding session, and that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for someone who haaaaaaaaates grinding. I have loved my Monark experience through and through, bumps be damned, and I would absolutely recommend this title to anyone who likes Shin Megami-style RPGs – and even those who might not, because I think the world and characters are that interesting.
Monark is available on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Steam, and Nintendo Switch, and retails for $59.99 USD.